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Belonging at Portsmouth – arrive and thrive

27 Mar 2019 | Dr Harriet Dunbar-Morris Harriet Dunbar-Morris is responsible for providing leadership in the enhancement and evaluation of the student experience at Portsmouth University. Here she outlines some of the ways Portsmouth is doing to help students develop a sense of belonging.

Harriet Dunbar-Morris is responsible for providing leadership in the enhancement and evaluation of the student experience at Portsmouth University. Here she outlines some of the ways Portsmouth is helping students feel like they really belong.

It’s a significant step to leave school or college for university. Getting to grips with independent learning and self-study, different assessment methods and perhaps a new subject whilst also being surrounded by new people in an unfamiliar place, can take its toll.

University challenged

For all students there are challenges but different students are nervous about different aspects. We can show applicants the University at an open day, online or in our prospectus, but how do they really get a feel for what belonging and taking part in learning here really means?

We’ve all heard of ‘imposter syndrome’, and some of our students may well suffer from it. If we can help students feel that they belong and are part of our community, we give them some of the tools they need to make the most of their time at university. So what can we do?

There are no silver bullets - I don’t purport to have the answers.

But some of the things we’re doing at Portsmouth are working, so I’m just offering some of our ideas to the sector. I’d summarise our approach as: arrive and thrive.


First of all, once they have unconditional firm status, we give applicants joining us in September access to our website resources. They can take some online courses to prepare for higher education and reflect on their personal studying and learning style, and in doing so, start to become acclimatised.

The ‘Learning at Portsmouth’ portal also provides information about personal tutoring and features our WhatsUp? mobile app, designed by a Portsmouth student, to help students keep track of their wellbeing.

Students can join our 'Living Well at Uni' groups for 1st years, developed in conjunction with students, to offer both peer support and a rolling programme to build transition-supporting skills.

This bespoke programme complements our wider ‘Welcome Groups’ initiative, which helps new students develop supportive peer networks over the transition and induction period. It builds on our successful ‘Wellbeing Café’ and the popularity of peer support. The groups are facilitated by student ‘Welcome Ambassadors’, trained to provide an inclusive and engaging welcome via social media and, more importantly, in person. These are cross-faculty groups of new students with shared interests which encourage students to make wider networks and connections. They make ‘concrete’ the sense of belonging which is so essential to student retention and success.


#UPSUok ‘It’s OK to not be OK’ is our Students’ Union campaign, run by students, for students, to raise awareness of mental health and wellbeing at the University and help any students who might feel alone. It is designed to remove the stigma around mental health and to promote the support services that all our students can access. I am proud to support it. It is an example of how we work together in, and have a shared sense of, community.

We’ve just co-created a Student Charter which makes tangible that all-important sense of belonging: a shared set of principles that staff and students agree will contribute to an outstanding student experience, supporting students to demonstrate the ‘Hallmarks of a Portsmouth Graduate’. During the induction period, students brought the Charter to life by writing comments to explain what the principles in the Charter meant to them.

Services for all who need support

Our disability and wellbeing services provide opportunities for applicants who need them to adjust to university life before they arrive. Enabling applicants and their families to come to the University and introduce them to key sites, services and resources means they feel more confident knowing what to expect and who to speak to once they arrive. Our student wellbeing service also offers these students an opportunity to attend a ‘Wellbeing Transition Day’.

So, to students thinking about that significant step, at open days, browsing websites and reading through prospectuses, ask not what your university can do for you, but what your university can help you to do for yourself.

To colleagues in the sector, how do you help your students to help themselves?

At Portsmouth, Harriet is responsible for providing leadership in the enhancement and evaluation of the student experience. She champions the student voice, and facilitates partnership working, ensuring that student engagement is central to the University's activities. In 2017/18 she led the revision of the Curriculum Framework which included embedding the Hallmarks of the Portsmouth Graduate within the curriculum.

Advance HE’s New to Programme Leadership: Embedding Mental Wellbeing in the Curriculum workshop enables lecturers, programme leaders and other interested parties to find out more about teaching and learning activities complementing those offered by student services, forming part of a broader ‘whole university’ approach to wellbeing and student retention.

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